Etching has been practiced since the 16th century, not only to make original art works, but also as a means of reproducing drawings – such as botanical illustrations – for publication.
In the process of etching, the artist draws with a sharp pointed tool (etching needle) on a metal plate which has been coated with an acid-resistant waxy resin. When the drawing is complete, the plate is immersed in acid and where the metal has been uncovered by the action of the needle, the acid bites into the metal to create grooves. The plate is cleaned and inked; the ink is held in the grooves and when the plate is passed through a press with a sheet of paper on top the design is transferred to the paper. The inking and printing can be repeated many times to produce multiple identical impressions.
Etching enjoyed a revival as an artists medium in Britain, France and to a lesser extent the United States, from the 1850s onwards, as photography replaced etching's role in reproduction. The so-called 'Etching Boom' included artists such as J.A.M. Whistler (whose prints were much admired by Lucian Freud) in the 1860s and Frederick Griggs and Graham Sutherland (who later gave Freud his own etching tools) in the first decades of the 20th century. The boom ended with the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the subsequent Depression which led to a collapse in the market for etchings. They had in any case fallen out fashion, being mostly monochrome, and widely considered to be ill-suited to modern subjects and styles. Aside from landmark achievements such as Pablo Picasso's Vollard Suite of 100 inventive and accomplished prints, made in the 1930s, etching did not regain popularity until the 1960s and '70s when it was adopted by influential artists such as David Hockney and Jim Dine, and printmaking workshops such as Studio Prints (established in 1968) began specialising in etching. It is now widely practised by artist's making original prints.
The V&A has an extensive collection of etchings from all periods. Here is a selection of examples made in recent decades, demonstrating the variety of style and subjects that contemporary artists have explored through etching.
Frank Auerbach (born 1931)
Lucian Freud's friend and contemporary Frank Auerbach has made many etchings, and he too worked with Marc Balakjian at Studio Prints. His etching style is bold, angular and incisive. His portrait of the artist R.B. Kitaj was printed from two etched plates, the first printed with silver-grey ink and the second with black.
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (born 1977)
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye makes 'portraits' of imaginary characters, often wearing fancy dress, which allude to historic styles of portraiture. The title Siskin is the name of a British bird (one of a series) and may explain the sitter's feathered collar. This print has a rich shadowy softness that recalls Rembrandt's etched self-portraits.
Marcelle Hanselaar (born 1945)
Marcelle Hanselaar's Child Soldier is also an intriguing invention, inspired by 17th century paintings of black subjects. She has said that she chose to make etchings because the 'harsh bitten line' seemed so well-suited to her subject matter which often focuses on war and violence.
Chris Ofili (born 1968)
Chris Ofili's print from the series from T to B with L was drawn on the etching plate as he sat in a street in Barcelona, working with trance-like intensity. The small, repeated lines create a semi-abstract map-like effect, but the image is inspired by the sight of Tibidabo, a hill overlooking the city.
George Shaw (born 1966)
George Shaw's more conventional landscape, a suburban view from his series Twelve Short Walks, is dense and dark. There is a mood of unease, a sense of neglect and decay. The ragged grass verges and sprawling shadowy hedge-banks have an affinity with Freud's view of his own dense over-grown garden.
Michael Landy (born 1963)
Michael Landy's Creeping Buttercup is a landscape in miniature, a delicate botanical study etched in fine faint lines. It comes from his Nourishment project, a series of portraits of commonplace wild plants he found growing tenaciously in inhospitable urban environments, springing from cracks in pavements or carpark tarmac.
Bronwen Sleigh (born 1980)
In Baker Street Bronwen Sleigh used a vivid pink and a slate grey to record multiple perspectives on an urban view. The scuffs and scratches that accumulated on the plate were retained in the printing to mirror the weathered abraded surfaces of the street itself.
Ian Chamberlain (born 1976)
Ian Chamberlain is also intrigued by the visual evidence of architectural redundancy and decay in his studies of the weathered hulks of abandoned coastal fortifications, such as that in The Last Stand. Like Lucian Freud, he sees etching as an extension of his drawing practice, and he too works on an unusually large scale.